The ever-refreshing, ever-entertaining programme by Sadler’s Wells at their central London outpost, the Peacock Theatre, continues with Justitia by Jasmin Vardimon Company, a “gripping courtroom dance drama” that is brutal and darkly comic in equal measures, set on a grand revolving stage.
Vardimon is interested in the idea of multiple truths and perspectives in a courtroom.
Which is the real truth, out of a selection of ‘truths’ presented at a hearing? Is objectivity ever possible?
In the opening, we see a court stenographer on her typewriter. One arm creates shapes and movements in time with the sounds of typing like a conductor, conducting the fate of people.
Justitia is a truly multi-disciplinary piece breathtaking physical theatre is combined with text and speech from dancers who are, it must be noted, extraordinary actors too.
That the dancers can act and speak confidently makes all the difference, since the story is told primarily through dialogue. Done poorly, it could easily have looked like an A-level performing arts project.
There are big set pieces that really show off what the dancers are made of, such as an early sequence that had the two lead males fooling around at home: while this testosterone-fuelled meeting is very true to life, you can’t help but also notice just how difficult and risky their throws and jumps are. But Vardimon is equally fond of small, subtle movements: a twist of ankle, a move of head, a little game of musical chairs.
There is a recurring theme of manipulation. One ethereal scene features two duets in unison, with one behind shutters: a manipulation of the lawyer and the stenographer, suggesting different layers of truth. In another, the lawyer applies make-up on a witness, speaking for and moving her like a dummy. Manipulation is a dirty lawyer’s trick, of course, and she admits this herself in a later scene, telling the audience: “I’m gonna wrap you around my little finger.”
The story revolves around the murder of Seth Marvel (a show-stealing performance by Paul Blackman), found dead in the home his best friend, Charlie Cain, shares with his wife, Mimi. Cain came home after a ten-minute booze run to find Marvel sprawled across the Kazakh rug in the front room. There is only one suspect: Mimi, the only other person in the house.
The most important thing, of course, is to establish what happened. Led by Mimi’s defence lawyer, the jury (that is us, the audience) is presented with several versions of what happened. Did the jealously she felt for her husband’s friendship drive her to hit Marvel over the head with a lamp for no good reason? Was it the illicit love affair between Mimi and Marvel that led to a tragic accident? Did she feel humiliated enough to murder a man she tried unsuccessfully to seduce? Or, in the most nightmarish scenario, was it an act of self-defence as she attempted to fight off a man trying to rape her?
This last sequence was a turning point in Justitia. Up until that scene, the piece had been full of laughter (and a lot of laughter at that) it’s a relatively humorous take on a whodunit story. This unexpected scene hit the audience like a slap in the face, and we felt silent. It was horrific and uncomfortable viewing, for women in particular, no doubt but it also proved just how well-choreographed, well-acted Justitia is.
The sombre tone continues for the rest of the piece, though there is one notable exception: the opening sequence in the second act, where Mimi and Marvel are set against each other in a slow-mo, arcade-style, cartoonish kung-fu fight, held up by other dancers clad in black, all to a jazzed up remix of the Pac-Man theme tune. OK, so it has been done before (in a Pepsi Max advert several years ago), and it’s pretty stupid, but it did provide some much-needed relief in an increasingly sinister turn of events.
The audience does find out the truth in the end, in the form of a confession from Mimi, revealing her story to the stenographer behind shutters like a Catholic to a priest. But the truth is irrelevant it is the process of finding the truth, the concept of justice, objectivity and manipulation that is fascinating, and Justitia has tackled this with gusto.